While many have turned their attention toward the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 7, the Ravens complete their preseason schedule by taking on the New Orleans Saints in their first visit to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome since Super Bowl XLVII Thursday night.
Of course, the stakes pale in comparison to the last time the Ravens traveled to Louisiana, but the livelihood of a select group of players still vying for roster spots is on the line as key position battles remain at wide receiver and potentially on the offensive and defensive lines. After trimming their roster to 75 players earlier this week, the Ravens must produce their first 53-man roster by 4 p.m. Saturday while also scanning the open market to see what players might shake free from other teams.
Thursday represents the final time some players will ever play football while others will find themselves seeking opportunities with 31 other NFL teams by the weekend. In all reality, most decisions will have been made prior to Thursday’s game with only a couple spots potentially up for grabs when the Ravens take the field against the Saints.
“It’s hard every year. It seems like we get to this point every year and we feel this way about our team,” said head coach John Harbaugh of the final roster decisions. “It just seems like it’s a challenge every year. That’s a good problem to have. Getting to the season, I hope it’s proven true. I hope we don’t think we have good depth and all of the sudden we get into the season [and] find out we don’t. That’s the nature of what we do.”
Thursday’s game won’t offer much from an entertainment standpoint as Harbaugh confirmed earlier this week that most starters will not play against the Saints, a team the Ravens will face in the regular season on Nov. 24. With the number of injuries currently plaguing the secondary alone, Harbaugh and general manager Ozzie Newsome will likely use the preseason finale as an evaluation tool of their secondary depth — the Ravens signed veteran cornerback Derek Cox on Wednesday — more than anything else.
Even without his starters playing in the final game of the summer, Harbaugh says expectations remain high for backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the rest of the Baltimore reserves who will either be filling out the 53-man roster or looking for work by Saturday.
“I want to win the game. We don’t go down there to not win the game,” Harbaugh said. “We are going to do everything we can to win the game. If we walk off the field without the win, I’m not going to be happy about it. I want to walk over and shake the other coach’s hand as the winner — not the loser.”
Thursday will be the second preseason meeting between the Ravens and the Saints, but Baltimore owns the 4-1 edge in the regular season and a 1-0 advantage in the preseason. The Ravens are 45-29 all-time in the preseason and have a 18-9 preseason mark in the Harbaugh era.
Unofficial (and largely speculative) injury report
The Ravens are not required to release an injury report like they do for regular-season games, but I’ve offered my best guess on what the injury report would look like if one were to be released ahead of Thursday night’s game in New Orleans.
Most of the players ruled to be out will come as no surprise, but the status of a few will be in question. This list, of course, does not take into account the many veterans — injured or not — who will be held out of the preseason opener due to the coaching staff’s preference.
Again, this is not an official injury report released by the Ravens:
OUT: CB Lardarius Webb (back), CB Asa Jackson (ankle), CB Jimmy Smith (chest), DT Terrence Cody (hip)
DOUBTFUL: OL Jah Reid (head)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Owen Daniels (legs), S Matt Elam (leg), RB Bernard Pierce (head)
PROBABLE: WR Kamar Aiken (head)
Five bubble players to watch Thursday night
1. QB Keith Wenning
This one will be fairly clear-cut as you’d expect the Ravens to limit Wenning’s playing time if they desire to pass him through waivers and place him on the practice squad. If Wenning receives extensive playing time, it could be a sign that they’re prepared to keep him on the 53-man roster as the third quarterback behind Joe Flacco and Taylor. The Ravens haven’t carried three quarterbacks on the active roster since 2009, so the consensus expectation is they’ll run the risk of losing their 2014 sixth-round pick and use that roster spot for another position of need while hoping Wenning makes it to the practice squad.
2. WR Deonte Thompson
The speedy third-year wideout has been one of the stars of the summer with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Dallas and a 21-yard touchdown reception against Washington, but Thompson has also failed to take advantage of past opportunities in Baltimore. Even in Saturday’s game in which he caught the touchdown from Taylor, Thompson played only nine offensive snaps compared to 19 taken by Kamar Aiken and 13 by seventh-round rookie Michael Campanaro. The wild card that could keep Thompson on the roster is his blinding speed, which is a nice asset to back up Jacoby Jones in the return game.
3. LB John Simon
I’d still expect the 2013 fourth-round pick to make the roster, but the Ohio State product hasn’t stood out this preseason with only three total tackles. Considering there are four outside linebackers — Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, and Pernell McPhee — ahead of him on the depth chart, Simon’s only chance to see the field will be as a special-teams player in his second season. Given the current vulnerabilities at cornerback and on the defensive and offensive lines, Simon could be a surprise cut as nothing about his play on the field during practices or limited game opportunities suggests he’s really deserving of being a lock.
4. OT James Hurst
Despite receiving more attention that the typical rookie free agent after a broken leg factored into him going undrafted out of North Carolina, Hurst has struggled this summer and probably wouldn’t be receiving much consideration for a roster spot if not for the recent concussion suffered by fourth-year tackle Jah Reid. If Reid’s symptoms linger longer than expected, Hurst might find himself on the active roster when final cuts are made, but it’s doubtful that the Ravens would feel comfortable if needing to use him on game day. The likely scenario for Hurst would be the practice squad where he can continue to develop.
5. OL Ryan Jensen
The Ravens thought enough of the 2013 sixth-round pick as a rookie — and their struggling offensive line probably played a part as well — that they carried him on the 53-man roster despite a broken foot that sidelined him for an extensive part of the regular season. A year later, Jensen is firmly behind veteran A.Q. Shipley and fifth-round rookie John Urschel in the pecking order at guard as he saw only eight offensive snaps against Washington. Because he’s a recent draft pick, Jensen would figure to have a good chance to be signed to the practice squad, but his performance and playing time suggest his roster spot is in major jeopardy.